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Burnout

Have You Passed the Burnout Threshold?

How to predict and address stress and burnout.

Key points

  • The phases of burnout include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feeling a low sense of personal accomplishment.
  • Burnout can sometimes lead to physical illnesses.
  • People can address stress and burnout by taking time away, seeking support, meditating, and exercising.

The Covid-19 pandemic created a scenario that is unmatched in modern times. Nearly all people worldwide experienced a great deal of stress — fear of contracting the dreaded virus, isolation from friends and loved ones, the move to remote work for some employees, and for others, increased danger of infection from working in enclosed spaces or with infected people.

While everyone experienced some type of stress, a number of people have reached the stage of burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome resulting from prolonged exposure to stress. It leads to a lack of motivation, can adversely affect personal relationships, and can cause a sense of emotional exhaustion. Many employees working remotely from home are experiencing burnout due to the lack of separation between work and home life, leading to the perception that one is “always working.” The lockdowns made everything worse because many people felt like they could not escape from the home-work environment.

As we come out of the pandemic, employers are becoming increasingly concerned about worker burnout. Many employees have simply had enough from the stress of nonstop remote work, and they are looking for a “timeout” or for a change in careers. As a result, many industries are experiencing a lack of qualified and motivated workers.

How do you know if you are burning out?

The 3 Phases of Burnout

In most instances, burnout occurs in three phases.

Emotional Exhaustion. In the first phase, excessive demands are placed on the individual. In the workplace, this can be too much of a workload, but it can also come from difficult interpersonal relationships with bosses or coworkers. In the home, too many demands, including child or elder care, housekeeping, relationship conflict, and trying to balance work and home life, can all lead to emotional exhaustion.

If you have a sense of working too hard, often feel tired, and your “bad days” greatly outnumber your “good days” at work or home, you are probably experiencing emotional exhaustion.

Depersonalization is the second phase of burnout, and it involves having a cynical and insensitive attitude to those around you. At work, you feel disconnected and the result is strained relationships with other workers, and poor treatment of clients and customers.

If you feel out of touch with others, are cynical toward your job and those you work or live with, and simply feel like you “don’t care” anymore, you are likely experiencing the depersonalization phase.

The third phase of burnout is feeling a low sense of Personal Accomplishment. In this phase, people feel frustrated and helpless. There is a sense that “nothing is getting done” or that the work you are doing is unimportant and meaningless.

Burnout not only affects performance at work, and turnover, but it can lead to physical symptoms, much like stress does. Sleeplessness, or chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety — are all associated with burnout, and there is some evidence that this can lead to, or exacerbate, health issues such as heart disease/arrhythmias, migraines, gastrointestinal disorders, and suppressed immune systems. There is even some evidence that burnout can be “contagious” — burned-out workers may cause other workers to also experience burnout.

How to Combat Burnout

The best strategy for combatting burnout is to remove yourself from the stressful situation. Of course, this isn’t always a possibility. If you are burned out in your career or job, you should review your options. Can you change positions or careers? If not, getting some time away can help you recover (although going back into the same situation could lead to a continuing cycle).

Get some support. Whether it is counseling, turning to a mentor or friend, or simply creating a support group, making a supportive, “human” connection can help.

Meditation/Relaxation/Exercise. As with all forms of stress, keeping yourself in good physical shape helps stave off the illnesses associated with burnout. Systematic relaxation, meditation, and yoga are good strategies.

Employers can do quite a bit to help prevent stress and burnout, and here are some strategies for reducing stress in any workplace.

References

Maslach, C. (1992). Burnout:: The cost of caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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